Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What Will Tighter Airport Security Mean for You? A mandate to detect more weapons at TSA checkpoints means enhanced screening for more travelers through the holiday season and beyond

The Wall Street Journal
By Scott McCartney
Updated Nov. 29, 2017 11:19 a.m. ET

The Transportation Security Administration escaped Thanksgiving without major airport bottlenecks. But the agency still faces big challenges.

Screening changes are coming that may upset travelers already struggling with limited mobility, plus those with overstuffed carry-on bags. TSA plans to enhance screening of travelers in orthopedic casts or wheelchairs. In addition, more checkpoints will require travelers to dump all electronics, food and other items from bags so they can be X-rayed separately.

The big problem hanging over the airport security force is whether it can ever do well in Department of Homeland Security tests of its ability to find hidden weapons carried by travelers. In covert tests this summer, 80% of weapons went undetected. For several years, the tests conducted by the department’s inspector general have shown even worse results —90% or higher, bolstering the view of many travelers that TSA is ineffective.

“I’m afraid TSA is falling into a rut of trying to defend what they do rather than fix it,” says Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, (D., Miss.), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Specific results of the tests are classified, but the inspector general issues a public summary and more specific information usually leaks out. The inspector general did say eight classified recommendations were made to improve screening and TSA agreed with the suggestions.

TSA argues its ability to find bombs and other weapons isn’t as bad as the tests indicate and is improving. Up to Thanksgiving, TSA has already found more firearms in 2017 than all of 2016—an average of more than nine a day, the agency says.

TSA administrator David Pekoske notes that none of the DHS employees going through checkpoints for the tests are on any watch lists that would trigger secondary screening. “When we do preselect somebody for additional screening…our detectability rates are very high,” he says.

But the tests got the attention of the new administrator, on the job not yet four months. He’s looking at deploying more canine teams, which are very effective at finding bomb materials. He’s also trying to enhance training for screeners and is looking at speeding up the rollout of new, stricter procedures involving electronics and food.

“We are more secure now than we were before the test results came out,” Mr. Pekoske says.

In the past, embarrassing undercover testing has prompted TSA to tighten up screening at checkpoints, slowing the flow of passengers. In 2016, this led to very long lines and missed flights, culminating with a meltdown in Chicago with passengers stranded overnight before changes were made to speed up passenger flow.

Mr. Pekoske says there will be some tightening, but that shouldn’t slow checkpoints too much. One thing that’s helped: TSA’s trusted-traveler program, PreCheck, has added 2.2 million people in the past two years, bringing total enrollment to 5.7 million, TSA says. A total of 12 million people are eligible for PreCheck, including people enrolled in Customs and Border Protection programs like Global Entry. Moving more travelers to PreCheck lines speeds up regular lines and enhances security, TSA says.

Officials say the security testing revealed a vulnerability of weapons smuggled by those in orthopedic casts or wheelchairs. That means those people will get more enhanced screening, officials say, such as pat-downs and bomb-residue swipes. The added attention will likely infuriate some who already have plenty of difficulty navigating airports.

The longer-term solution, Mr. Pekoske says, is a wider body-scanning machine that could accommodate someone in a chair with a leg straight out. Such a machine is in development, he says.

As a result of the failing tests, TSA is also looking at speeding up the rollout of the enhanced carry-on bag screening, which began testing a year ago and started expanding to airports after the summer rush. The rollout likely will continue through March and April. That means there will be different rules in different cities at least through the winter.

Mr. Pekoske says the program, known at TSA as Enhanced Accessible Property Screening, or EAPS, has slowed down checkpoints as both screeners and travelers get used to new procedures. But he doesn’t expect significant increases in wait times.

Tests so far show that making people declutter bags does make screening more effective. Items inside bags are easier to see clearly on X-ray screens. Mr. Pekoske calls it “a significant enhancement to security.”

But TSA says it needs better technology at checkpoints, too. TSA is testing CT scanners at checkpoints in Phoenix and Boston. These scanners, similar to ones used to screen checked luggage, look inside bags from all angles, much like a hospital CT scan, and produce a clean 3-D image. Since they can measure the density of materials, they’d even allow TSA to drop restrictions on liquids.

Mr. Pekoske says the tests are going well and will likely be completed by next summer. A year from now the agency will start asking Congress for money to buy machines to replace the 2,200 X-ray machines at checkpoints. The technology is so promising, airlines have already ordered the first machines for their hubs and agreed to donate them to TSA to speed up deployment.

Mr. Thompson, the Mississippi congressman, says the CT scanners highlight a fundamental problem at TSA: It’s too slow with new technology. Other government agencies have funding to develop and deploy it. TSA has labs to evaluate what contractors develop and then goes to Congress to get funding for purchases, a multiyear process.

“I’m firmly convinced that technology is the way to go,” Mr. Thompson says. “In some instances, we’re too slow, and the bad guys are not waiting for us to get it right.”

TSA did get through the Thanksgiving rush smoothly. A check of 25 major airports on Monday found a few reports of long waits hitting 30 minutes to 45 minutes at some periods. But past holidays have seen way worse.

TSA says from Nov. 17 through Nov. 26, 98.1% of passengers waited under 20 minutes in queue for screening. On Sunday, the busiest day, about 5% of non-PreCheck passengers waited 20 minutes or more for screening, TSA says. Only 0.5% of PreCheck passengers waited that long.

Mr. Pekoske says TSA prepared for Thanksgiving and was well-staffed for the rush. The agency offered lots of overtime to officers, he says.

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